Friday, February 27, 2015

BY: Andres Rodriguez, Jr.

Andres Rodriguez, Jr with his daughter BAT Leadership
Team Member Aixa Rodriguez

My family immigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico in the summer of 1960. I was an eight year old boy who, along with two younger sisters and his parents, arrived to start a new life in an urban setting that dwarfed the quiet and mostly rural lifestyle he left behind. The change in scenery was overwhelming. In the island we were part of an extended family living in a humble but spacious home. Life was joyful, noisy, carefree, simple and full of adventure. The thought that we were poor never crossed our minds. My daily childhood routine consisted of waking at sunrise, playing outside all day without adult supervision and coming home just before sundown. Boredom was an unfamiliar state.

Until I arrived in the United States, I had never experienced isolation. Suddenly I was in a different world. Everything was new or alien. The familiar warmth and security of our extended family disappeared. What family we had living in the states lived far away. I didn’t know a word of English. I had no friends. Concerned about my safety, my parents wouldn’t let me play outside unsupervised. I had to devise indoor games and grow accustomed to the confining and constraining forces of apartment living. But there was no turning back. As much as I hated my new surroundings, I knew we had arrived to stay. Still, traumatic as that introduction to life in the South Bronx was, the idea that things could get worse never occurred to me. But they did. It would take some years for me to understand why and to realize the profound impact that simple acts of kindness and compassion had on my life’s trajectory. One such act was performed by Ms. Bonilla in September of 1960 when my mother took me to P.S. 62 to register me for school.

It is noteworthy that to this day the island’s K-12 public school instruction includes European as well as American characteristics. It is: free and secular, compulsory and conducted entirely in Spanish, with English taught as a second language and compulsory at all levels. Hence, by the time they graduate high school students are fully bilingual and are quite competitive in America’s higher education system. Many decide to attend American colleges and universities.

Ms. Bonilla was the only Latina administrator in P.S. 62 and may very well have been the only one in NYC’s public school system at the time. She was also one of the few of color and as a woman, a rarity in NYC’s public education bureaucracy. She also lived in the community where she worked. Perhaps it was coincidence, but she was in the administrative office when my mother walked in with me in tow. With her limited English my mother spoke to a non-Spanish speaking administrative staff member explaining that she was there to register me for school. I had completed the first and second grade in Puerto Rico and by the time I finished second grade I could read and was already getting writing instruction. My mother provided that information fully expecting that I would be matriculated to the third grade. From the expression on her face I could tell that the conversation was not going well. It was then that Ms. Bonilla intervened and interviewed my mother in Spanish. Overhearing the conversation, I realized that the first administrator was getting ready to matriculate me to the second grade simply because I didn’t speak a word of English. Despite my young age the prospect of being left back a grade was crushing. It was then that Ms. Bonilla went into action.
After reassuring my mother, Ms. Bonilla took me aside, spoke to me directly and proceeded to assess my reading and arithmetic skills, all conducted in my native Spanish. When she was done, she said that I would be matriculated in the third grade. She immediately completed the necessary paperwork, gave a series of instructions to administrative staff and assigned me to the roster of class 3-8. She partnered me with a Spanish-speaking “peer tutor” to make sure there was someone available to provide support and “teach me the ropes”, including helping me with the English language. What was most astonishing about that decision was that the “peer tutor” happened to be her son, who happened to attend the same class!

I stayed in touch with Ms. Bonilla and even visited her and her son until I graduated and left P.S. 62 to attend the neighborhood junior high school. By the time I started high school in El Barrio in Manhattan, my family moved. I found out that Ms. Bonilla and her family also moved, so I lost track of that extraordinary woman. She didn’t need to be lectured on the meaning of cultural competency: she lived it. There was no need to inculcate in her the value of knowing your community: she lived in it. She instinctively understood the needs of ELL students before those services were widely available. She understood the need to engage not just students, but also their parents. She was keenly aware of the inherent bias of a system that to this day remains unresponsive to the needs of students that reflect a sea-change in the cultural, ethnic and linguistic composition of our communities. She was truly ahead of her time.

For years I tried unsuccessfully to reconnect with Ms. Bonilla. I regret not getting the opportunity to tell her how immeasurably important meeting her was for my educational trajectory and my life.

My name is Andres Rodriguez, Jr. The intervention of a kind and compassionate Latina educator inspired me to excel. I graduated from the top 6th grade class in Public School 62 and earned Salutatorian honors at Junior High School 52 in the South Bronx, graduated class Valedictorian of Benjamin Franklin High School in El Barrio, and earned a Bachelor of Arts cum laude at Harvard University.

Thank you to Valerie Strauss for publishing this on Washington Post Blog


  1. What a beautiful tribute to a teacher! I hope Ms. Bonilla eventually sees this. If she is no longer alive, I hope a family member sees this. Your blog is a treasure. You honor her, of course, but also every other teacher who has made a difference for an English Language Learner.

  2. Was it destiny I became an ESL teacher?

  3. This is a wonderful example of how a caring educator can make a difference. Ms. Bonilla, wherever you are, you are an inspiration to us all!

  4. Reading this powerful essay, I was reminded of my own story. As I looked down and saw Aixa's post about destiny, it made me wonder: is there a path that brings teachers to a certain place, and why?

    I left my native Cuba as the child of a political refugee, went on to Mexico, but my father was not happy there either. We then came to the United States, where my brothers, sisters, and I were plopped into a school: it was sink or swim, as there was no such thing as bilingual anything back then.

    I was lonely and very much alone.

    But I do remember one teacher.

    Although I could not attend her classes, I will never forget her kind words. She must have spoken to me in Spanish, because my six year old brain could not capture meaning in any other language at the time.

    But she told me to look at all the images and signs I might see as I rode the buses, as I rode cars, as I walked down the streets. She told me to make out the words next to those images, and to figure out eventually what each said.

    Eventually, things would click, she explained.

    So I followed her advice, as she was the first American adult -- if I remember correctly -- who gave me a welcoming smile. I came to understand that BANK was banco, HOUSE was casa, SCHOOL was escuela, and so on and on.

    She smiled at me then, and she wished me the best of luck. With her words of kindness, I still remember her, decades later.

    As I give the same advice to refugee children I help with asylum papers now -- who will eventually come into our education system -- years and years later, I remember this great teacher, and I thank her for her wonderful gift.

    We need to thank all our great educators, all our Ms. Bonilla's...

    Besos, not borders,
    Ana M. Fores Tamayo, Adjunct Justice



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